The Daily Star
23 February 2007
By Michael Glackin
"What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by the Iraqis." With these words British Prime Minister Tony Blair formally announced the start of the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. It is the end for a government involvement in the bloody quagmire that Iraq has become since the US-led invasion in 2003. It is an admission of defeat.
The reality of Blair's astounding and tasteless understatement is that British troops are exiting a country in the throes of civil war. One where poverty and death are endemic, and corruption within all branches of government is rife.
The great beacon of democracy that Iraq was to symbolize for the entire Middle East will remain unlit as Britain tiptoes away in the darkness.
But to hear Blair talking on Wednesday you could be forgiven for thinking that none of this had anything to do with him.
It has been clear for some time that the endgame in Iraq was not going to be defined in the simple, clear terms of victory or defeat. But the idea of leaving Iraq in a better shape than Blair and US President George W. Bush found it appears to have been abandoned. Along the way, the entire Middle East has become a much bigger powder keg of trouble than it was before the invasion.
Withdrawal is the right thing to do, but the sheer hypocrisy of Blair and his government in claiming their Iraq mission has now been successfully accomplished beggars belief. Running for the door before you have fully cleared up a mess you've created is hardly a job done.
But against the backdrop of seemingly never-ending violence, Blair steadily reduced the scope of his ambitions until they became meaningless but easier to fulfill.
And make no mistake, where Blair has trod this week, Bush will follow once his last-ditch "surge" has run its course, whatever its outcome. No one wants to inherit Iraq when its principal authors leave office.
Wednesday's announcement was not a surprise. The Blair government has been briefing that a pullout, or "drawdown" as officials prefer to call it, would begin in earnest for months. A succession of senior soldiers - most notably the head of the armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, last year - have warned British troops are no longer serving a useful purpose in Basra, and are now exacerbating the situation.
Dannatt's unprecedented intrusion into politics proved to be a defining point in the ill-fated Iraq mission. The British public, never wholehearted supporters of the decision to invade Iraq, became increasingly weary following Dannatt's attack on the war. In addition to thousands of Iraqis killed since the invasion, 132 British soldiers have died serving in Iraq since March 2003. The latest, Private Luke Simpson, was being buried at the same time as Blair was announcing the withdrawal to Parliament.
Blair is weary too. When government colleagues ask about policies on various issues, he reportedly answers: "Well, I won't be around for that."
Because of this, his power and grip on Cabinet colleagues is eroding fast.
Senior government official Peter Hain recently felt confident enough to slam Bush for being "the most right-wing" American president in memory.
Not so long ago, criticizing Blair's partner in the war on terror would have cost Hain his job.
Blair, a politician besotted with his legacy, has been desperate to have the start of a withdrawal in place before leaving office this summer. The beginning of the drawdown, which will reduce troop numbers in Basra from 7,100 to 5,500, is expected in May or June. This is likely to coincide with an announcement from the prime minister of a timetable for his departure from 10 Downing Street. A further 500 troops will be sent home by the end of the summer and, if all goes according to plan, there could be a further withdrawal before the end of the year. By the end of 2008, a majority of the remaining troops will be withdrawn. However, it is understood that a brigade-sized force of around 2,000 soldiers will remain garrisoned in Basra as a backup to Iraqi security services.
The speed of the withdrawals is much slower than many had forecast.
The army is understood to have recommended a much faster timetable, but concerns in Washington about Britain's dwindling commitment curbed the government's enthusiasm. Behind the supportive statements from Washington on Wednesday, the White House is greeting the withdrawal through gritted teeth. Although the withdrawn troops are likely to end up being dispatched to Afghanistan at some point, it is no secret that Washington was keen to redeploy them to Baghdad to help US troops.
Washington is also worried that arms smuggling from Iran will increase once British troops leave Basra. Basra isn't pacified, it is simply as good as it is going to get for now. The Bush administration fears withdrawal will open the floodgates to a fresh round of violence between Shiite militias in the south as they seek to fill the vacuum left by the British.
The US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said as much last month when he admitted he would prefer British forces to remain at their current levels. When surging, you need all the surge you can get, and a 23 percent reduction in British troops while the US is increasing its numbers by 14 percent indicates a diminishing commitment in any language.
Despite this, British Defense Minister Des Browne, a close ally of Blair's likely successor, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, insisted that the United Kingdom and the US remain "on the same page" in terms of policy.
Having promised democracy and investment, the UK helped create a bloodbath. The next chapters in Iraq's history may well be written by the Iraqis, but they are stuck with a script authored by the West. And the pages look set to get even bloodier.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written.